The Monster

WRITERS ISSUE: An excerpt from El Monstruo

El Monstruo: Dread & Redemption In Mexico City is a perverse love letter to the most contaminated, crime-ridden, corrupt and conflictive urban stain on the western side of the planet, where I have been touched to live for the past quarter of a century. My life is now hopelessly entangled with the life of this monster of a megalopolis.

El Monstruo was indeed a monstrous book to write. The slagheap of materials that I sucked up -- hundreds of volumes of history, slagheaps of newspapers, mountains of personal recollections -- fill my threadbare room at the Hotel Isabel in the old quarter of this city from floor to ceiling. The narrative I have assembled spans 50,000,000 years give or take a few minutes, dating from the Paleocene to last spring's Swine Flu panic with significant stops for the doomed Aztec empire, the war of liberation from Spain, the Mexican revolution of 1910-1919, the student massacres of the '60s, the Great 1985 earthquake, and the erratic governance of the electoral left for the past 12 years.

It is a long story.

The Mexican Revolution was in many ways a war against Mexico City, a capital for which the rest of the country was named and from which all power continues to radiate. The great revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa viewed Mexico City as a Sodom & Gomorrah that had to be destroyed if the country was to be redeemed and they did their best to do so. The excerpt that follows speaks to the Monstruo on the eve of the downfall of dictator Porfirio Diaz and the inception of the first great revolution of the landless in the Americas.


Back home in Morelos, Emiliano Zapata was elected village leader, entrusted to recover Anenecuilco’s lost lands, granted to the Indians by the Crown in the 17th century. The sugar planters, many of whom were foreigners, had gobbled up the Nahuas’ land and water without remorse.

“Land and Water” was in fact the slogan of Madero ally Vicente Leyva’s campaign for governor of Morelos in 1909 against Díaz's gallo (rooster), Pablo Escandón, the scion of an immensely wealthy criollo family that had first struck it rich in real estate during Juárez’s Reform, and also a sugar planter who rarely bothered to visit the tiny state. Zapata aligned Anenecuilco’s fortunes with Leyva and Madero. Escandón won by a landslide of course, without ever having to leave El Monstruo. To Zapata, Escandón WAS El Monstruo.

By 1910, 2 percent of all Mexicans owned all the land—save for 70 million hectares held by foreigners with family names like Rockefeller and Hearst and Morgan. One hundred percent of the good farming land in Morelos was occupied by 17 haciendas operated by absentee patrones (bosses). The haciendas sucked up all the groundwater, leaving villages like Anenecuilco dry as a bone. The unequal distribution of water continues a century hence. Wealthy Chilangos have overrun Morelos with their golf courses and palatial second homes, leaving the villages just as thirsty as they were in 1910.

Years ago, I rented a large house in Olintepec, a colonia that shares ejido land (communal farmland) with Anenecuilco, and was able to see how the land must have looked to Zapata when he rode through these fields. I walked out through the tall sugar cane along the irrigation canals to the Caudillo’s humble adobe home, now a museum, on a back street in Anenecuilco, and each young horseman barreling down the country lanes could have been the Caudillo all over again.

But an hour and fifty-five minutes later, when I stepped down off a bus in the belly of the Monstruo, the urban hurly-burly swirling all around me, I always got a whiff of the profound culture shock Emiliano Zapata must have suffered when he was forced to visit this city he so detested.


Francisco Madero’s call for the revolution to commence November 20, 1910, stirred sparse response.